Relatives can easily get on each other's nerves. Suzanne Masefield offers ways to head off any aggro.

As Christmas draws near, stress levels often increase as demand on finances, time and energy increases. Stress is contagious and when friends and family feel stressed it often spreads to infect everyone.

Recognising body language postures, gestures and facial expressions indicating stress can be useful, as despite any image we're trying to project these signals betray our true emotional state. Identifying "warning bell" signs over Christmas can stop the stress bug spreading and you can turn challenges into positive outcomes.

Stress signals
Non-verbal postures, gestures and expressions often reflect a range of freeze, flight or fight stress signs.

At the freeze/flight end of the spectrum people exhibit rounded, hunched shoulders almost folding in on themselves, chin tilted down, locked ankles and wringing hands. They blink more frequently, perspire more, look flushed or very pale, frequently touch their face, rub their eyes or avoid eye contact.


Often, they use pacifying gestures such as putting objects in their mouths, self-touching/hugging, brushing off clothing or stroking hair. They use objects or body parts as barriers to feel safe, such as folding arms, sitting on hands, crossing legs and turning body parts away, eg, feet facing the door for a quick exit. They may exhibit micro-expressions of fear/anxiety with a tense forehead, lifted brows, tight, closed mouth, wide glazed eyes or sad drooping chin with a downturned mouth.

On the fight end of the spectrum people may exhibit all of the above including invading others' space, fast movements, gritted teeth, clenched jaw, arms and hands, using jerky or definite larger movements, pointing or hand waving.

Search for at least three consistent signals to help support your assessment. No single body language sign is a reliable indicator, eg, Mum's folded arms may simply mean she's cold or taking time to internalise her thoughts. However, if Dad has arms folded, chin down, eyebrows lowered, a wide A-frame stance and is stomping around the house most of the morning, this cluster of repetitive posture, gestures and expressions over time suggest frustration or anger, and high stress levels.

Take charge to overcome conflict
In stressful or conflict situations people often hold their breath, breathe shallowly or hyperventilate, closing their posture and cutting down oxygen to the brain. This limits clear thinking, tightens the body, diminishing physical strength and confidence, lowering their ability to manage difficult situations. You need to do the opposite _ breathe deeply, open your posture, stay calm and centred.

By stabilising your body language first you're able "be" in family situations to respond rather than react. You can then determine whether to offer support, apologise, walk away, stand your ground or mirror their body language to increase trust and rapport. Creating a more relaxed environment with your body language during stressful times calms others and helps you turn things around more effectively.

Stabilise your foundation
The first step to body language empowerment is awareness, so "check in" with yourself at natural stop points during the day, such as meals and bathroom breaks. Then run through the following actions:

Take a breath: Place a hand on your stomach, feel your feet on the floor, open your posture, stand tall, and take three slow, deep breaths down to your stomach. Practising this regularly calms your whole system, releases pressure build-up and develops your "relax" muscle to use when things get tough.

Open your body language: Research shows that when you use open body movements and gestures (upright posture, palms facing up, feet forward) you're more receptive to others. They warm to you and it can defuse stress as you're welcoming and non-threatening.

Take a walk: During heightened stress, go for a short, brisk walk to quickly release adrenaline and tension. If you're unable to go for a walk, go to the bathroom and walk fast on the spot for one minute. It works a treat.

Smile: Whatever the situation, when you smile, even if it's only internally, you lift your energy, increase the flow of endorphins (your happy hormones), and lighten your mood, so you're more able to see humour in situations.

* Suzanne Masefield is a body mind analyst and director of The Body Language Company. She is offering Herald on Sunday readers a free 'Body Language 4 Success' Report, valued at $30.